Friday, October 25, 2013

The Nightmare Before Christmas Movie Review

I love a good holiday film, but sadly there tends to be so few good ones out there. As far as Halloween goes, there are only a few suitable holiday movies that I've seen which aren't simply slasher horror flicks. One classic that has withstood the test of time is The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).
Halloween Town is a dream world where the citizens are friendly spooks such as deformed monsters, ghosts, ghouls, goblins, vampires, werewolves, and witches. Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon) the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town leads them in a frightful celebration every Halloween, but Jack has grown bored with doing the same thing year after year. While wandering into the forest outside the cemetery, he stumbles upon a portal to "Christmas Town." Jack is so impressed by the feeling and style of Christmas Town that he presents his findings and his somewhat limited understanding of the festivities to Halloween Town. They fail to grasp his meaning and compare everything he says to their idea of Halloween. Jack reluctantly decides to play along and announces that they will take over Christmas. Sally (Catherine O'Hara), a rag doll woman created by the local mad scientist, seems to be the only one who thinks it will end badly. Things do take a turn for the worst when Oogie Boogie (Ken Page) the villainous boogieman sets his creepy sights on abducting Santa Claus.
Tim Burton is frequently, and erroneously, credited for directing Nightmare. Burton was actually the producer and was present only about ten days out of the three years it took to complete the movie. Nightmare was actually directed by Henry Selick who also directed two other amazing stop motion animated movies: James and the Giant Peach and Coraline. Burton did come up with the concept, though. Reportedly, Burton saw a store's Halloween merchandise display being taken down and replaced with a Christmas display, and the juxtaposition sparked his imagination. He then wrote a poem which drew inspiration from the TV Special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas. Burton published and illustrated the poem as a children's book. The concept and design inspiration was all that Burton did, everything else was Selick.
Selick did strive to capture the feel of a Tim Burton movie, and he did such a good job that Burton is often given all the credit. Like many of Burton's films, Nightmare features spindly characters with huge eyes; there are lots of hard angles, spirals, and stripes. This is ironically juxtaposed against the cute and colorful world of Christmas Town. It's like Halloween Town is German Expressionism and Christmas Town is an outrageous Dr. Seuss village. When the two worlds collide, it creates a visually striking setting to tell a pretty funny story with some fun and creative characters. I love it when the Trick-or-Treaters show up at Santa's house.
The stop motion animation in Nightmare is still remarkable even today. Animated movies are often made with computer animation these days. While they are without a doubt fascinating, there's something more physical and organic about good stop motion animation. You can watch a CGI animated movie and even when it's impeccably done, your brain simply recognizes it as being artificially rendered computer images. But with good stop motion you see things that physically exist and that appear to be moving on their own despite how improbable that might be. Nightmare's visual effects and animation at its release was every bit as innovative and revolutionary as Star Wars and Who Framed Roger Rabbit were in their day. Even scenes that look as though they had to be made with computers were, in fact, not. For example, Jack's pet ghost dog, Zero, is transparent and interacts with physical objects. It only makes sense to have Zero be CGI animated, right? In actuality, a complex series of glass and mirrors were used to make the Zero puppet, which was off set, seem to be interacting with other puppets while appearing transparent. The result is amazing.
Part of what makes Nightmare so endearing is the music. Renowned movie composer Danny Elfman provided the score and musical numbers for Nightmare as well as providing the singing voice for Jack. The songs and score are so engaging and memorable that it will keep audiences humming the tunes well after the movie is over. The songs move the story forward and develop the characters while remaining fun to listen to. I hope the Blu-Ray has a sing along version or something. The two songs that have always stuck out to me are "This is Halloween" and "What's This?" They're just so catchy!
 The Nightmare Before Christmas is a cult classic and is still well loved even twenty years after its original release. I can't think of a single time since it hit theaters that merchandise wasn't available somewhere. Walt Disney Pictures has reissued the film annually under their Disney Digital 3-D format since 2006, making it the first stop-motion animated feature to be entirely converted to 3-D. This is the perfect movie for the holiday season, especially since it covers two holidays! Nightmare was originally released under their Touchstone Pictures banner because they thought the film would be too dark and scary for kids; even at PG, I think it might be a bit too scary for kids under the age of 6. But for anyone else it's a classic that shouldn't be missed. I think this is worth owning on Blu-Ray, possibly in 3-D if you can find it.

Here's the "What's This?" song. You can't tell me you don't get caught up in Jack's excitement and wonder.

Disney wanted to make a sequel using computer animation, Burton convinced Disney to drop the idea. "I was always very protective of Nightmare not to do sequels or things of that kind," Burton explained. "You know, 'Jack visits Thanksgiving world' or other kinds of things just because I felt the movie had a purity to it and the people that like it..." Thank goodness for that! But if there was going to be a sequel, what Holiday would you enjoy seeing Jack encounter? Comment below and tell me all about it!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 Movie Review

So, I just finished watching Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 (2013) with some friends. I've still got food puns on the brain and I'm afraid a few might slip into my review. I was really looking forward to Cloudy 2 since I loved its predecessor so much. As is the case with most sequels, this one wasn't as good as the first one, but there were so many witty jokes that I still enjoyed it for the most part. Now, lettuce get on with the summary.
Picking up moments after the first movie left off, Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) and his friends have just saved the world from the food storm. Super-inventor Chester V (Will Forte), the CEO of Live Corp, is tasked to clean the island. The residents of Chewandswallow are relocated to the mainland and Chester offers Flint a job at Live Corp where the best inventors in the world create technologies for the betterment of mankind. Returning to Chewandswallow keeps getting pushed back, until one day Chester shows Flint a video shot on the island. Flint's food making machine is still operating and is creating mutant food beasts like hungry tacodiles and shrimpanzees. Flint gathers his friends Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), "Chicken" Brent (Andy Samberg), Officer Earl Devereaux (Terry Crews), Flint's dad (James Caan), and pet monkey Steve (Neil Patrick Harris) and return to the island of Chewandswallow to deactivate the food making machine before the foodimals learn to swim and terrorize the mainland.
With one exception, all of the original cast returns to reprise their roles. Mr. T, who played Officer Deveraux in the first film, declined the offer to return for the sequel. Terry Crews stepped in and did a fantastic job; I wouldn't have realized the actor was changed had I not checked the cast listing. I pity the fool who tries replace Mr. T, but Crews did a respectable job.
So, Cloudy 2 wasn't as good as the first movie. The change in directors from the first to second movie is evident; it seems that this one wasn't given as much care and intelligent skill that the first film had. Part of what made the first movie so good was the even pacing, the well developed characters, hysterical and witty jokes, and fantastic animation. The main problem with Cloudy 2 was that it was very rushed. There was very little down time between action scenes, and it left almost no time to develop the characters. It results in a standardized half-baked recipe for kids movies; loud, weird, chaotic, with an occasional poop joke thrown in.
Having said that, the movie is still conceptually creative. It reminds me of a foodie-version of The Lost World: Jurassic Park as if conjured up by Hollywood's Golden Age animator Tex Avery. Cloudy 2 is chock full of really witty jokes and puns. Our heroes come across food animals and start giving them names like peanut butter and jellyfish, flamangos, mosquitoast, and watermelephants. A lot of foodimals were not actually named, but I feel like there were puns behind them, such as a buffaloaf, hippotato, and apple piethons. Everyone panics when there's a leek in the boat. Anyone who can make this many running gags about leeks deserves props in my opinion. The jokes are numerous and pretty good, even if the rest of the script is relatively lackluster
The animation is great. The characters are as spastic and expressive as they were in the first movie, and it still has that Saturday morning cartoon vibe. It's brilliantly colorful and gorgeous to look at. Chester is particularly entertaining to watch. I feel like he was a play on Steve Jobs; he had this weird zen-like fluidity with expressions and gestures that defy a bone structure. He maintains balance and usually finishes his rubbery movements in a position of symmetry. The foodimals are highly creative, and have some pretty realistic animal-like movements. It's just delightful to watch.
This second helping of Meatballs seems to confuse bigger for better. It has lots of action but lacks the character development and story quality of the first course, making a hash of things. The manic pace and its unwillingness to settle on a single theme makes it feel like a quick-hit sugar high. Cloudy 2 isn't as good as the first movie, but still, it's kind of fun. The jokes and puns will please most everyone, and the animation will dazzle viewers. Kids will likely get a bigger kick out of this one than the adults will. It's worth seeing if you enjoy wacky movies like this, but unless you have kids who will want to see it again and again, it's a renter.

Okay, just because I loved the foodimals so much I'll ask you to come up with one of your own. Mine would be a guaca-mole. Hah! Comment below and tell me one of your own!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Sydney White Movie Review

Before coming up with this blog, I used to keep my Movie List in a day planner which I would carry around with me everywhere. As a conversation starter I would show people my Movie List and ask for recommendations. I have no idea who it was who recommended Sydney White (2007) to me or why, but it was written down and I just now got around to seeing it. It's really not very good, but in its defense it is a very cute movie and is a bit on the creative side.
This modern retelling of the classic fairy tale, Snow White, follows college freshman Sydney White (Amanda Bynes) who has just arrived at Southern Atlantic University ready and eager to pledge to her late mother's sorority. Once upon a time, this sorority was dignified and respectable, but the pristine reputation has been tarnished now that the tyrannical blond Rachel Witchburn (Sara Paxton) has taken over as student council president. Sydney's likable personality soon draws the attention of Tyler Prince (Matt Long), the president of one of the fraternities, much to Rachel's infuriation. After surviving the sorority's vigorous pledging process, Sydney is quickly banished for daring to question Rachel's regime. Now left with nowhere to go but a condemned house on the edge of Greek Row, the dejected and rejected pledge quickly makes friends with the seven dorks who live at the house; the biggest social outcasts on campus. Perhaps if these nerdy frat boys and Sydney can shake up the system with a takeover of the student government, they could restore the once-proud reputation of the prestigious university and offer hope to geeks everywhere.
Sydney White was released the same year as Hairspray which also had Amanda Bynes in it. Hairspray was great, but Sydney White wasn't. Apart from Amanda herself, the acting was just terrible; the cast were primarily amateurs at best. This also was not Ms. Bynes best role. She is still very expressive, has good comedic timing, and is naturally cute. Nevertheless, I think every other role I've seen her is better than this one. Her delivery seemed a bit too artificial and rigid. She still steals the show, but I know Ms. Bynes can do better than this.
What makes the movie so cute and creative is the "Snow White" references. Rachel, the evil queen, has a PC in her room with a campus version of She's is always #1 hottest in the land, and goes to pieces when Sydney eventually usurps her position. The PC acts like the magic mirror telling the queen who is the fairest in the land. The frat house that the seven dorks live in actually looks a lot like the house of the seven dwarves in Disney's Snow White. It's fun to try and figure out which of Disney's dwarves are represented by which character; Sleepy, Dopey, and Grumpy are pretty obvious. For example, one of the dorks is a foreign student who started school three years ago and still hasn't recovered from the jet lag yet; Sleepy, get it?
There is one point when the seven dorks are walking past Rachel with student council campaign signs slung over their shoulders, imitating the scene of the seven dwarves walking home from the mines. As they pass Rachel, they each say, "Hi, hoe."  I would really love to talk about the poison apple and Sydney's deep sleep are implemented into a modern context, but that is a major event towards the end of the movie and I want to avoid spoilers. That alone gets props and will likely earn a few chuckles.
The story is so full of teen movie clichés it's embarrassing: Karmic revenge, it's okay to be who you are, a formulaic morality tale, don't judge a book by its cover, you should have been with your friends all along, etc. You have seen this movies dozens of times before. There are only a few lines of dialogue that are any good. There's even the one token black guy with almost no dialogue to round out the cast. The story and script simply are not good, and ultimately will not make a lasting impression upon you.
Sydney White was a creative attempt to retell the fairytale of Snow White, but it's just not a good movie. Amanda Bynes aside, the cast is pretty lackluster, and even Bynes herself doesn't really shine in this role. The characters are shallow and predictable, the script is too simple, and the story is remarkably cliché. There is a reason no one remembers this movie. Nevertheless, seeing all the Snow White story elements woven into an otherwise run-of-the-mill teen movie, earns it several points in my book. It really is a cute movie that did a couple of creative things. Apart from some minor bits of language, like the above mentioned "hoe" and a few others, it's also a clean movie that is probably just fine for most viewers. I cannot recommend Sydney White unless the cute Snow White motif really sounds appealing to you. Even then, it's a renter at best.

Would you like to see other classic fairy tales retold in a modern setting like this? What fairy tale retelling would you specifically like to see? Comment below and tell me why!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Oblivion Movie Review

Right around the same time there were two very similar movies released. Oblivion (2013) and After Earth both featured a basically ruined planet Earth and features our hero investigating the planet that now holds untold dangers. For months I kept getting the two titles mixed up. Is Hollywood so desperate for ideas that movies with essentially the same concept are released simultaneously? Maybe I'll get around to reviewing After Earth one of these days, but for now let's talk about Oblivion.
Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is nearing the end of his mission. He and his partner, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), work as a team to serve as security repairmen stationed on an evacuated Earth. Part of the massive operation is to extract vital resources after decades of war with a terrifying alien threat who still scavenges what's left of the planet. Jack repairs drones while Victoria communicates with Sally (Melissa Leo) at Mission Control. With only two weeks left until their assignment is complete, Jack and Victoria will soon join the lunar colony far from the war-torn world that Jack has long called home. Jack's stable and happy existence starts unraveling when a spaceship crash lands on Earth and he rescues an enigmatic stranger, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), from the wreckage. Her arrival triggers a chain of events that force him to question everything he knew. Jack and Julia find a small human resistance group lead by "Beech" (Morgan Freeman) who also have a surprising connection to Jack. With a reality that is shattered as he discovers shocking truths that connect him to the Earth of the past, the fate of humanity now rests solely in the hands of a man who believed our world was soon to be lost forever.
Oblivion has some stellar special effects. Not only were they highly detailed but they looked beautiful. Jack travels all over the planet and passes beautiful scenery that could only be artificially created with CGI work. There are ruined landmarks overgrown with vegetation, new and gorgeous landscapes that were a byproduct of earthquakes during the alien invasion, and other digitally created scenery that was positively stunning to view. The visuals don't simply serve to establish the setting, they are literally works of art. Jack and Victoria live on Tower 49, a home that hovers about 3000 feet above sea level in the sky. They don't just have a swimming pool to relax in, they have a clear swimming pool that they swim in and can see rolling storm clouds and lightning below them as they swim. The background details help develop the movie to a degree, but they are so gorgeously eye catching that they often upstage the characters and story that is going on in the foreground.
The story itself isn't bad. It's almost as if a grab-bag of sci-fi tropes were used to throw together a half-baked reason to showcase some beautiful visuals. But that's not to say that the story isn't good. Oblivion seems to draw inspiration from a lot of other sci-fi classics, such as Bladerunner, Total Recall, Star Wars, Wall-E, and War of the Worlds to name a few. Oblivion used these sci-fi tropes to tell a decent story, though not quite as well as when they were used in other movies. It's certainly a product of our age, though. Ideas like the end of the world, dwindling resources, questionable authority figures, and rising against the establishment are certainly verisimilar concepts that will likely appeal to a wide range of audiences.
The script was lacking in a few parts. It manages to tell the story well enough, but lacks refinement. When set against the beautiful visuals, the contrastingly simple script seemed lackluster. It got the point across but didn't have any truly powerful lines or thought provoking moments. Most of the plot twists weren't very big revelations and you could predict the ending ahead of time. The script remains interesting enough to be engaging, but there is hardly anything that will stick with you after the movie is over.
Oblivion is a decent sci-fi movie with a nice balance of action and plot. You've likely seen most of what this movie does already in other movies. Movie critic Richard Roeper made a great analogy by saying, "This is the sci-fi movie equivalent of a pretty damn good cover band."  That pretty accurately summarizes my view; it is pretty good, but others have done the same thing a bit better. I liked Oblivion and it is worth seeing, especially for the magnificent visual effects. But since it may not stay with you like the other sci-fi movies that inspired it, I have to say it's a renter.

What is your favorite post-apocalyptic, end of the world movie? Comment below and tell me why!